Sunday, July 29, 2007

Readings: The Good Argument

I am currently reading a very interesting, and I think, well-constructed novel, entitled The Mind-Body Problem, by the American philosopher and writer of fiction Rebecca Goldstein. The protagonist of the novel is a hypo-confident female graduate student in philosophy at Princeton University who marries a world-class mathematical genius and member of the faculty. Through the acquisition of this “trophy husband,” the protagonist, who is as physically beautiful as she is intellectually insecure, is afforded the status within the Princeton community that she has been unable to acquire through her own efforts. That’s the plot.

What I want to write about here, however, is a passage in which the proper attitude to take towards argument is portrayed. Noam, the math genius husband, has engaged in stormy philosophical arguments with the protagonist’s good friend, Ava, a graduate student in physics—a field which Noam, who lives his intellectual life somewhere out in Plato’s heaven of Ideas, feels to be inferior since, unlike mathematics, it deals with the empirical and the material. Renee, our heroine, is made extremely uncomfortable by these heated shouting matches between her husband and her friend and confidante, Ava:

"The first few times when Noam called some statement of Ava’s idiotic, her view nonsense, I suffered on my friend’s behalf. Until I noticed that the insults didn’t bother her in the least. Both of them have the same impersonal attitude toward ideas, whether their own or others’. It’s the validity that matters, not the person incidentally attached."

Deeply felt arguments can become whipped up to the emotional level when occurring face-to-face. In a comment box duel, where there is no danger of being answered with a stiff left jab to the jaw, this is even more likely. We should, therefore, always try to remember that it is ideas, and not personalities, that we visit blogs to wrangle over. With regard to our interlocutors and intellectual adversaries, along with Ava we should say: “The only thing I feel towards Noam is grateful that he takes me seriously enough to call me dumb.” A little humility is good for the soul.